Government secrecy: dark cloud over open society

Sunday, March 13, 2005

“It would be a fair guess that if every page of every newspaper published in
the United States on a given weekday were given over solely to reprinting the
(secret) documents created that day, there would not be enough space.”

Those are the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan writing in “Secrecy,” a
landmark report by the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy,
which the late senator chaired.

When the report was issued in 1997, secrecy in the federal government
actually was in decline. How times and the two-way information compact between
the government and the citizenry have changed.

So, too, has the massive amount of secrecy the federal government regularly
turns out. In 1995, this nation was creating 3.6 million government secrets a
year. Today, we have reached a stunning pace of 14 million secrets annually — a
fourfold increase in a decade.

In fact, there are billions of official secrets warehoused around the nation,
but those huge stores are dwarfed by mountains of unofficial secrets —
government information that is not classified but is considered too “sensitive”
for Congress, the public, scholars or the press.

The argument for most of this secrecy, of course, is to make us safer. The
irony is that excess secrecy can — and will — make us less safe. A further and
perhaps more pernicious threat lurks in secrecy’s often-unrecognized impact on
democratic discourse and decision-making.

How does a nation that celebrates the idea of openness find itself shackled
to a government information system that has a default setting of secrecy?
Excessive government secrecy, after all, is a rather sharp rebuke to our
democratic instincts. It too readily accepts the rationale that to keep
America’s enemies at bay, we must keep America’s citizens in the dark.

Government officials have never been comfortable with too much public access
to information. The political impulse is to control information, not share it.
Indeed, the Bush administration, like its predecessors, has not been able to
resist that impulse. Even before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it was
moving aggressively to constrict the flow of government information to the

One of its first information-policy actions, for example, was to halt the
scheduled release of tens of thousands of unclassified Reagan administration
documents to the public. Also early in the administration, the Justice
Department began working on a revision of the attorney general’s implementation
memorandum for the Freedom of Information Act. When finally issued in October
2001, the document sharply diminished the presumption of openness that had
brought the law into being in the first place.

During the past few years, the White House and federal agencies have rebuffed
requests for information from Congress, public-interest groups and the press
about such crucial issues as meetings of the vice president’s energy task force,
detainees rounded up in the wake of 9/11, deportation hearings for detainees,
implementation of the Patriot Act, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the FBI
investigations into the anthrax poisonings and the Los Alamos spy case, and
treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

Government Web sites have been taken down and thousands of pages removed from
other government sites. Government publications and CD-ROMs have been recalled
from public availability. Curbs have been placed on the flow of scientific and
technical information. Protections for government whistleblowers have been

One of the most far-reaching changes in government information policy has
been the emergence of a massive new system for putting government information
beyond the reach of the public, the press and Congress. This category of
information is called “sensitive but unclassified” or SBU. This new system
quickly began to spread through federal agencies after the White House issued a
memo in March 2002 warning employees that they must take care to protect such

The decision to safeguard material as SBU can be made at very low levels,
based on broad definitions and complicated criteria. Government officials making
such decisions have very few incentives for disclosure and strong incentives for
withholding, including harsh penalties if their decisions are later

Thus, in a relatively short time, one of democracy’s core principles, the
“right to know” for the public, has devolved into a “need to know” for certain
individuals and now threatens to become a “right to control” for government
officials only.

The more secretive a government, of course, the more estranged it becomes
from democratic principles and traditions. And the less it benefits from the
wisdom, experience, enterprise, ingenuity and support of its citizens.

When Americans are kept in the dark about what the government is doing and
not doing, finding and fighting terrorist threats becomes much more difficult.
So does preventing misuse and abuse of government power.

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